If there is one thing that has been consistent with the Apple brand throughout the years, it’s that they have a fiercely loyal customer base that has expanded from what was once a very small percentage of the market, to worldwide dominance through their mobile devices. The reasons why Apple’s brand is so popular could be the subject of numerous dissertations on the power of marketing, psychology and design aesthetics, and for the most part, their hardware and software has consistently been of high quality (with a handful of high-profile exceptions) since the very first Apple computer took the world by storm. If you are choosing Apple products for their hardware, software, or design aesthetic and can afford their comparatively higher cost, I find no fault with that reasoning. However, if all other things being equal (hardware, software, design) when determining which brand to pursue, and you select Apple based on their perceived ideological stance, it may be worth considering the below.
What this means for you
Since taking over for Steve Jobs in 2011, Apple CEO Tim Cook has work studiously and successfully to elevate Apple’s branding to represent the company as having a more socially and environmentally conscious stance. This includes several, high-profile incidents such as where he challenged stockholders to sell if they disagreed with Apple’s increasing investment in renewable energy, Apple’s public filing of a friend-of-the-court brief on Trump’s intent to cancel DACA, and most recently in the spat with Facebook over recent changes to the Apple iOS to provide more transparency on the apps that track their user’s activities. While there is nothing wrong with these stances – they are each of them laudable – these are the ones that Apple wants you to recognize them for, and not for other, more questionable decisions, such as their removal of a Hong Kong protest app at the request of the Chinese government, and most recently, their change in policy to allow phones sold in Russia to prompt users to install state-approved Russian apps, something they have never done for any other country or market…until now.
As I’m sure you are aware, Apple is a publicly traded company and is, in the end, beholden to its shareholders, regardless of its stated ideals. Yes, Tim Cook told disgruntled investors to sell if they don’t like Apple’s decision to invest in renewable energy sources, but as time has since revealed, this appears to be a shrewd forecasting of the world’s turn towards renewables. Likewise, Apple punished Facebook in January of 2019 in a highly-publicized incident where Facebook was revealed to be using an app to scrape users phones for data. Apple appeared be championing privacy for its users, but in fact the punishment levied against Facebook was for violating the licensing terms Apple extended to Facebook for the app – the license granted Facebook the ability to distribute apps for non-public apps, which this “research” app was clearly not. They were not punished for the intent of the app nor did Apple address the fact that participants were paid by Facebook for access to their data.
Social media has popularized a concept known as “virtue signaling” (controversial on its own) which seems to fit Apple’s publicity model. While Wikipedia’s definition seems to imply that Apple (as a company) should not been seen as a champion of human rights while quietly doing the opposite when it serves them, they aren’t the only company doing this, and this is not something new to for-profit companies. In the advertising world, this is known as “good branding” and Apple, if nothing else, is a textbook example of excellent brand management. Make no mistake, as long as you recognize Apple (or any other company behaving similarly) as company with a bottom line and not an entity forwarding an agenda, their ideological stance should be viewed first as a marketing strategy and evaluated on what they do, and not what they signal.